KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
One of our most pleasant surprises since our arrival in China is finding the streets and back lanes of the city of Shanghai a spotless wonder. It seems every effort is being made to clear all litter and empty the waste bins throughout the metropolis. We ventured into some of the oldest parts of the city and found even the busy street markets tidy and inviting. It's a busy time for Shanghai with the Special Olympics being held during the National Week holiday period and this coming weekend is the Grand Prix Formula One (China). There are huge red banners hung on many government buildings and Andrew Dawrant tells me they exhort citizens to work together in building a better community and homeland. This obviously extends to the little details like keeping the streets clean for all to enjoy.
As I mentioned before, the French Concession is filled with huge plane trees, many of which meet above the streets and provide shade and a feeling of calm in a city of fifteen million. They serve to block out the sight of hundreds of high-rise buildings and help one forget that they are filled with thousands upon thousands of residents. The trees have unusual bark; it reminded me of camouflage fatigues. Any other city of this size would be filled with millions of automobiles, but traffic in the residential neighbourhoods is surprisingly light and I was delighted to see that many people still ride bicycles as part of their daily routine.
There are main roads and elevated expressways that can and do experience gridlock during peak hours but it never feels overwhelming like we've felt in other cities this size. Shanghai has developed a metro system, a monorail, and has a full complement of local buses to transport workers and students to jobs and school. People can purchase stored-value cards that can be "swiped" to pay for transportation on the metro, on buses, and even in the taxis. The price of gasoline is highly subsidized so taxis are relatively inexpensive, especially for foreign travellers, so we are happy to hail a cab when our tired feet just couldn't walk another block.
Getting around is fairly easy if one has a good map of the city, as streets are marked with Chinese and English signs. However, there is so little English spoken by the people of Shanghai, you are pretty much on your own to figure out where you are and where you need to be. One evening we hailed a taxi on our own for the first time and I was thrilled to find the driver understood me when I told him the name of our street "Wuding Lu". Luckily, I had been told that "road" is "lu". When he used hand signals to indicate he needed to know the cross street, I tackled a more difficult street name "Wanghangdu Lu" and wanted to hug him when he smiled and pulled out into the traffic. Maybe that's why the taxi drivers have a plexi-glass shield protecting them from passengers!
We have spent hours walking through the streets of the French Concession, but once Andrew had some time off during the holiday week, he bravely took us into the heart of the city along the western bank of the Huangpu River to see the business and shopping districts. During the holidays people flock from all over China to visit this modern city and witness for themselves the gateway to the West. The famous Nanjing Road is the heart of the trendy shops and department stores, and much of the downtown portion of the street has been turned into a pedestrian mall. We shouldered our way through the crowds and I was amazed to see people naturally walk in one direction along the south side of the street and the other direction along the north side. I didn't expect things to be so orderly in China, after spending six months in that other country of over a billion people, India.
Andrew pointed out all the famous stores along Nanjing Road, including the No. 1 Department Store and the Shanghai First Food Store. Many of the facades of these lovely old buildings are now covered with huge signs selling Coke, Pizza Hut pizzas, and Starbuck's Coffee. It's a little sad for us coming from overseas, but the people from the surrounding provinces seem to admire it all.
We continued along Nanjing Road until we came to the famous Bund (an Anglo-Indian term for the embankment of a muddy waterfront). This is the area along the Huangpu River that became Shanghai's Wall Street during colonial times. It was the scene of fortunes won and lost in buildings styled like neoclassical 1930s downtown New York. It makes an especially impressive sight for those arriving in Shanghai by river. Before heading to Number Three on the Bund for a cold beer on the upper level terrace, Andrew took us to a small private art gallery where we viewed an exhibit, which graphically displays some of the e-waste that is shipped, by the tonne, to China each year. E-waste is the components of discarded electronics and computers, much of it toxic, that Western countries send to China for disposal. Out of sight, out of mind so to speak. This artist is using her talents to try and draw attention to the dangers that the Chinese people face when the toxic effects of this refuse permeate their soil and water.
We left the gallery thinking of the harmful effects of all the new developments in China and settled on the terrace to soothe our brains and our sore feet. The view was spectacular. The Bund stretches for a full mile along the river as it arches to the east. In the 1990s, the road was widened and a flood barrier was built so that the river now lies above the level of Nanjing Road. A huge promenade was constructed to allow pedestrians to enjoy the view across to the Pudong New Area, which until 1990 was a 350 sq km area of marshy farmland. Since then it has become the heart of the financial district and is the site of some of Shanghai's best hotels. The strange Oriental Pearl Tower dominates the skyline; people may visit each of its three baubles, but it's best to just view it by night from across the river.
The restaurant was fully booked for the evening, but we were able to stay until 7:30 pm to watch the sun set and enjoy a wonderful meal on the north-facing terrace. The crowds on the promenade continued to gather until we noticed a huge contingent of military and police arrive to close off the road and begin ushering the people off the promenade. We were sure that some important dignitary was due to arrive until Andrew pointed out that in that case there would be police on all the rooftops along the Bund. Instead, it appeared that the huge mass of people was simply being moved onto the road to reduce congestion and ensure that there was adequate crowd control. We watched, with amazement, the well-orchestrated operation below. Uniformed soldiers in green, linked hands and once the police in blue had cleared a space in front of the line, they goose-stepped forward six paces until another space had been cleared. The crowds moved along and down the ramps to the roadway with no resistance whatsoever.
As we finished our meal and prepared to leave, we were stunned to find the street below completely filled with people. They were shoulder to shoulder on the street, as packed as they had been earlier on the promenade now that more people had arrived to see the buildings lit up all along the river. We decided to leave the Bund and head back west along Nanjing Road to see the street all lit up with neon signs. It is too hard to describe so I will leave it to you to marvel at the photos I took of the scene.
With the large crowds, taxis were hard to come by so we descended into the metro station and purchased tickets from the extra staff hired to handle the large holiday crowds. The authorities have set up folding tables next to the ticket kiosks and there were few line-ups for tickets. It seemed everything had been well planned. The crowds moved along smoothly and before long we were back in the French Concession, a short taxi ride from our apartment. As we drove away from the Jian'an Temple metro station, Andrew pointed out the old Paramount Theatre decked out in blue neon lights. I snapped a picture as we hurtled past, its blue lights soothing after the glare of red and gold along Nanjing Road. It had been a wonderful day on the streets of Shanghai.